Before she gained fame with her book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote another book entitled The Last American Man. It was a biography of Eustace Conway who has since also gained his own measure of fame as a cast member of the History Channel’s show Mountain Men.
But, Conway’s real life story is far more interesting than any plot line created by television producers. As a youth in South Carolina, he had a strained relationship with this father and spent much of his time at nearby museum learning about indigenous culture and primitive living skills from the people who worked there. At seventeen, he left home and lived in the woods in a teepee where he stayed through college. Later he went on to walk the entire Appalachia Trail wearing only a loin cloth and road horseback across the United States from coast to coast. When Gilbert published the book in 2002, he was still living in a teepee in the Appalachian mountains and wearing buckskin clothing.
He definitely did not drive a Camry and work in middle management.
When I read her book, there was a quote that stuck with me about circles and boxes. Quoting Conway she wrote,
“I live in nature where everything is connected, circular. The seasons are circular. The planet is circular, and so is the planet around the sun. The course of water over the earth is circular coming down from the sky and circulating through the world to spread life and then evaporating up again. I live in a circular teepee and build my fire in a circle. The life cycles of plants and animals are circular. I live outside where I can see this. The ancient people understood that our world is a circle, but we modern people have lost sight of that. I don’t live inside buildings because buildings are dead places where nothing grows, where water doesn’t flow, and where life stops. I don’t want to live in a dead place. People say that I don’t live in a real world, but it’s modern Americans who live in a fake world, because they have stepped outside the natural circle of life.
Do people live in circles today? No. They live in boxes. They wake up every morning in a box of their bedrooms because a box next to them started making beeping noises to tell them it was time to get up. They eat their breakfast out of a box and then they throw that box away into another box. Then they leave the box where they live and get into another box with wheels and drive to work, which is just another big box broken into little cubicle boxes where a bunch of people spend their days sitting and staring at the computer boxes in front of them. When the day is over, everyone gets into the box with wheels again and goes home to the house boxes and spends the evening staring at the television boxes for entertainment. They get their music from a box, they get their food from a box, they keep their clothing in a box, they live their lives in a box.
Break out of the box! This not the way humanity lived for thousands of years.”
I remember reading that and thinking, heck yes, I’m a circle guy. Screw the boxes!
But, we live in a world full of squares. In a world of borders. As I write this, I’m inside room that’s a square, sitting at a desk that’s a square, and I’m typing on a bunch of square buttons and reading what I’m writing on a square monitor. And if I want to look outside, I can look through the square window to my left.
Let’s be honest. It’s way easier to build something that’s a square instead of a circle. The math is way easier.
The natural world grows things using circles. The human world mostly build things using squares. Not everything, mind you, but most things.
Circle people are easy to find. Think back to the cowboy archetype. They’re outside. They want wide open spaces. They want to be connected to nature. They want to be able to feel the wind on their faces. They don’t want to be confined. The idea of being boxed in creates uneasiness in them. They are the proverbial round pegs trying to be crammed into a square hole.
And as much as corporate America likes to talk about getting outside the box, they’re mostly full of shit.
Corporate America doesn’t hire the Eustace Conways of the world. They may talk about how he inspires them. They’ll put him on display. They may share some quotes, hell, they might even try to bring him in as a featured speaker. But they don’t hire him because he won’t let himself be put in a box and they can’t bring themselves to allow him to roam freely.
And while the self-sufficient, free thinking, rebel may be the archetype for the American man, it’s exactly what modern America seems to despise.
The question is why?